Cobham, Sir Alan John

SUBJECT AREA: Aerospace
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b. 6 May 1894 London, England
d. 21 October 1973 British Virgin Islands
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English pilot who pioneered worldwide air routes and developed an in-flight refuelling system which is in use today.
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Alan Cobham was a man of many parts. He started as a veterinary assistant in France during the First World War, but transferred to the Royal Flying Corps in 1917. After the war he continued flying, by giving joy-rides and doing aerial photography work. In 1921 he joined the De Havilland Aircraft Company (see de Havilland, Geoffrey) as a test and charter pilot; he was also successful in a number of air races. During the 1920s Cobham made many notable flights to distant parts of the British Empire, pioneering possible routes for airline operations. During the early 1930s Sir Alan (he was knighted in 1926) devoted his attention to generating a public interest in aviation and to campaigning for more airfields. Cobham's Flying Circus toured the country giving flying displays and joy-rides, which for thousands of people was their first experience of flying.
In 1933 Cobham planned a non-stop flight to India by refuelling his aircraft while flying: this was not a new idea but the process was still experimental. The flight was unsuccessful due to a fault in his aircraft, unrelated to the in-flight refuelling system. The following year Flight Refuelling Ltd was founded, and by 1939 two Short flying boats were operating the first inflight-refuelled service across the Atlantic. Inflight refuelling was not required during the early years of the Second World War, so Cobham turned to other projects such as thermal de-icing of wings, and a scheme which was not carried out, for delivering fighters to the Middle East by towing them behind Wellington bombers.
After the Second World War the fortunes of Flight Refuelling Ltd were at a low ebb, especially when British South American Airways abandoned the idea of using in-flight refuelling. Then an American contract and the use of their tanker aircraft to ferry oil during the Berlin Airlift saved the day. In 1949 Cobham's chief designer, Peter Macgregor, came up with an idea for refuelling fighters using a probe and drogue system. A large tanker aircraft trailed a hose with a conical drogue at the free end. The fighter pilot manoeuvred the probe, fitted to his aircraft, so that it locked into the drogue, enabling fuel to be transferred. Since the 1950s this system has become the effective world standard.
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Principal Honours and Distinctions
Knighted 1926. Air Force Cross 1926.
Bibliography
1978, A Time to Fly, ed. C.Derrick, London; pub. in paperback 1986 (Cobham's memoirs).
Cobham produced films of some of his flights and published Skyways, 1925, London; My
Flight to the Cape and Back, 1926, London; Australia and Back, 1926, London;
Twenty Thousand Miles in a Flying Boat, 1930, London.
Further Reading
Peter G.Proctor, 1975, "The life and work of Sir Alan Cobham", Aerospace (RAeS) (March).
JDS

Biographical history of technology. - Taylor & Francis e-Librar. . 2005.

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